Obituary: Mike Procter, a genius overshadowed by apartheid

One of South Africa's greatest allrounders could only play seven international Test matches

Mike Procter was part of the golden generation of South African cricket
Mike Procter was part of the golden generation of South African cricket

NH Sports Bureau

For the average Indian cricket fan with not much sense of history, the name of Mike Procter may not evoke pleasant memories. The South African great was the ICC match referee for the contentious India-Australia series in 2008 when he found spinner Harbhajan Singh guilty of racially abusing Australia’s Andrew Symonds, an episode which later became famous as 'Monkeygate'.

However, Procter was much more than that — a part of the golden generation of South African cricket comprising himself, Barry Richards and the Pollock brothers, who could have been the ‘Invincibles’ in the 1970s and 80s ahead of the West Indies but for the sporting isolation of the country thanks to its apartheid policy. Part of that legacy was undone on Saturday when the legendary allrounder, 77, passed away in Durban after complications arising out of cardiac surgery.

Just how powerful was the impact of that team lead by Dr Ali Bacher? If Bacher himself rates Procter, Richards and Graeme Pollock as three of South Africa’s greatest all-time players, it is not without reason. South Africa won six of the seven Tests in which Procter played, all against Australia, before their sporting isolation began in 1970.

The other match was drawn, with South Africa on the verge of victory before rain ended play. In those seven matches, Procter took 41 wickets with some aggressive exhibition of pace and swing at an average of 15.02. He also equalled a world batting record when he hit six first-class centuries in successive innings.

Born in Durban on 15 September 1946, Procter played first class cricket for 16 years, including 14 seasons with English county Gloucestershire (five as captain), where he achieved legendary status, and led the team to two limited-overs titles. Such was his impact in the county that fans often said it should be renamed ‘Proctershire.’

In South Africa, he played most of his cricket for Natal, the province of his birth, but had stints with Western Province and the then Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). His six successive centuries were scored for Rhodesia in 1970-71, culminating in a career-best 254 against Western Province.

When Procter was finally done, he had scored 21,082 runs in first-class cricket at an average of 36.92, including 47 centuries, and taken 1,357 wickets at an average of 19.07.

When South Africa returned to international cricket in 1991, Procter took over as its first coach when the team came to India, and soon created a modern template of the game with Kepler Wessels in charge and the line-up boasting players like Allan Donald, Jonty Rhodes, Peter Kirsten and others. They made the semi-finals of the 50-over World Cup in 1992 before the rain-rule (in)famously left them stranded at 22 runs to get off the last ball.

Procter's tenure as match referee between 2002 and 2008, however, was turbulent as he was twice involved in Tests that were called off before Monkeygate erupted.

New Zealand’s tour of Pakistan in 2002 was abandoned when a bomb blast opposite the team's hotel in Karachi shattered windows and killed 12 people. The Test was called off and the New Zealanders flew home. Four years later, umpire Darrell Hair accused the Pakistan team of altering the condition of the ball in a match against England at the Oval. Pakistan refused to go back on the field after the tea interval.

When the players did not reappear, Hair and fellow umpire Billy Doctrove declared that Pakistan had forfeited the match — a decision made without consulting Procter, who was negotiating with the team to return to play. The incident led to the ICC changing its rules so that a match could not be called off without the consent of a match referee.

The India-Australia face-off was Procter’s last series as a match referee, and he had a stint as convener of the South African selectors from 2008-11 before stepping away from the game for good.

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